IN CHESS, YOU WIN by being able to see a couple of steps ahead, as opposed to simply reacting to the last move. Increasingly, survival in movies and TV is going to require similar foresight, not just the regular bouts of “sequel-itis” to which networks and studios have grown accustomed.
Paramount among the legacies of “The Lord of the Rings,” whose third chapter “The Return of the King” began its siege on the towers of Oscar Tuesday, is an enormous gamble that paid off spectacularly — namely, releasing what was really a single monstrous film in three integrated parts. That approach, along with the bifurcated “Kill Bill” and creatively disappointing yet commercially solid “The Matrix” sequels and second “Star Wars” trilogy, reflects a new way of thinking beyond the more reassuring habit of stumbling upon success and then attempting to replicate it.
Indeed, old models are breaking down in both film and television as the two media grow toward each other, while the DVD age and high-definition technology steadily blur the line between home and out-of-home viewing.
TELEVISION HAS THRIVED as a serialized experience, enticing viewers to come back for the same hits week after week. Yet today, the ascent of so-called reality TV highlights a more limited, short-term experience — as well as one not as easily repeated, as second editions of “Joe Millionaire” and “Temptation Island” attest.
The same younger viewers who turned their noses up at those follow-ups also skipped the multiplex and hit the beach when presented sequels to “Charlie’s Angels” and “Tomb Raider.” This wasn’t a commentary on quality (the originals were hardly masterpieces), but rather a clear sense of been there, seen that.
None of this is especially comforting to those who sit in big corner offices. Imagine having greenlit a two- or three-part epic based on “The Incredible Hulk” and watching the second-weekend box office on the opening chapter plummet 70%, giving everyone involved a jolly green headache.
By contrast, I exited “X2: X-Men United” eagerly wondering where “X3” might go, and it’d be nice to know I won’t have to be an even older, more conspicuously beyond-the-demo recovering comic book geek when it finally hits the screen. (An exception would be the “Star Wars” films, where the lag time since “Attack of the Clones” is helpful in forgetting how annoyed I felt leaving the theater.)
THERE ARE SEVERAL IMPLICATIONS here, the first being that the prevailing mantra must be “No guts, no glory” — that big risks that will either pay off in commensurate fashion or empty entire studio wings like a neutron bomb. It will also shift various dynamics pertaining to talent, spurring negotiations that ask actors to gamble on their appeal in lieu the budget-busting sequel salaries that furnish homes in Beverly Park.
To an extent, the DVD market offers the means to partially offset colossal failure, knowing that certain cinephiles and sci-fi dweebs will buy pretty much anything; still, the misfires will be costly.In addition, the entire process has accelerated, which includes expediting release patterns to capitalize on youthful attention spans. Take my 19-year-old niece, who has paid to see “Return of the King” a half-dozen times already, roughly totaling a full day of her young life. My guess is that wouldn’t happen as readily if the installments were separated by three-year intervals and she was 25 when the third made its debut.
Some might grumble about how this mentality further transforms “art” into consumer product, yet that’s a battle long since lost on most fronts in this era of media gigantism. Besides, the challenge of conceiving multiple films or several prongs of a limited series going in might actually heighten creativity, fostering second and third acts that actually advance the original as opposed to merely cloning it.
As a kid, I distinctly remember rushing to see each new James Bond adventure and the sense of anticipation when the closing credits promised that 007 would return in “You Only Live Twice” or “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Of course, that came to a crashing halt for me faster than you can “George Lazenby” and “Roger Moore,” but you get the idea.
What’s clear is that the rules of the game are changing, and as in chess, pawns will be sacrificed before the board takes shape. No one can predict at this point what moves will lead to victory, but I suspect the first few will somehow involve pursuing “the King.”